Posts Tagged 'Identity'

You are not Your Brain – on Yochai Ataria’s new book

Not long ago, I awoke to a sunny morning in a B&B in Daliyat al-Karmel. It was the beginning of a family vacation, and I had forgotten my tefillin. There was no shortage of tefillin around, since I was on vacation with my wife’s extended (and religiously observant) family, and I was quickly lent a replacement pair. However, when I picked up the tefillin, I found them to be very different to my own. The straps were a different width, the boxes were a different size, and so on. I tried to lay them, but I simply could not. I did not remember exactly how. A few days later, I prayed again with my own tefillin without any problem – because with mine I remembered how.

That is, it wasn’t precisely “me” who remembered, but rather my body. I, as a self-aware consciousness, was not involved at all. My body simply moved quickly between the chapters of prayer without any intervention on my behalf. Nor did I need to “retrieve from memory” the best way to go about it, or to imagine an internal flowchart detailing the steps of the ritual. Everything was simply done – and done well.

So where is my memory? Is it in my brain? If so, why did changing the tefillin disrupt it? The fact that activating my memory required me to use my hands and also grasp a certain object suggests that recalling a memory is more than an intra-brain search.

Ataria'a bookIn his new book, Yochai Ataria makes precisely this claim. “Not by the Brain alone” (Hebrew) – the title of the book – is it that we are formed, Ataria claims. According to Ataria (a senior lecturer at Tel-Hai College and a scholar of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science), our subjective experience cannot be reduced the movement of neurons, i.e., to a particular form of activity in the brain. We are more than our brains, and to understand our subjective lives, meaning our internal lives and self-perception, our bodies and activity in the world must be examined.

The World is not Projected Inside Us

Ataria challenges the view that has taken hold in the modern world, and which has also been adopted in the field of scientific inquiry, whereby a person is equivalent to their brain, so that if we were to understand every detail of the brain’s workings, we could also understand who and what a person is. According to Ataria, this view is rooted in error. A person’s sense of self and subjective experience are not located among the neurons within the brain, but rather in the system of interaction between a person – brain and body – and their environment.

Ataria begins with a critique of contemporary studies of the brain, and claims, together with experts whom he cites, that despite collecting an impressive array of data, research of the brain has not led to any significant theoretical breakthroughs. Impressive machines such as the fMRI can only reveal a certain increase in the blood flow to a certain area of the brain, often without allowing for any conclusions pertaining to the meaning of such occurrences. Citing the philosopher Michael Hagner, he claims that an apt analogy would be an attempt to evaluate the functioning of a computer according to the level of its power consumption as it executes various functions.

He continues by debunking the view that experiences or sensory perception are based on the brain processing data collected and inputted by the senses. The “representation” view, the little Cinema screen inside the head, the idea that the brain projects what it receives from the senses to an internal viewer who analyzes and acts on the information that reaches him or her (imagine the representation of internal life within the robot in the Terminator movies), is completely wrong and based on a dichotomous distinction between internal and external, i.e., on the assumption that our consciousness is located somewhere inside our head, and the world is located outside of it.

There is no such distinction, claims Ataria. Building on the philosophy of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, he describes consciousness as part of the world. When we assemble a puzzle, explains Ataria, we do not turn each piece around in our head, our spirit, or our mind, before placing it in its place; we try turning it with our hands in order to make it fit in the real world, until we position it correctly. Our consciousness is not in our head and does not act on representations. It is located in our hands and in the world surrounding us.

This is not the way we work

Similarly, explains Ataria,

I do not remember him [my son] abstractly, but rather in a certain way, at a certain event. I have no objective and detached representation, but always a memory from a certain point in time […] Memory is an activity that requires a basic level of physical activity. The body, I wish to make the case, is the backdrop for all our activity in the world – including the various cognitive activities.

Memory, like consciousness, is not detached from the world. It is not abstract, nor is it “representational.” It is connected with a specific time and place, to a body and to activity. It is, like our mind, grounded. The notion of a mind that is detached from the world, that represents the world to itself in a distant and dichotomous way, is theoretically misconceived and based on an illusion – an illusion that we live.

“The point of departure,” claims Ataria, “is not the thinking self but rather the acting self.” We are bodily beings in a physical world, not ethereal souls in a psychological world. As I once wrote,

We are beings that are situated within a body and can understand who we are and what the world is only by means of our body. This is the reason we use our hands when we speak, even on the phone. This is the reason we think better when we are walking. This is the reason our language is filled with metaphors of space and time whose purpose is understanding spirit and soul.

Indeed, we have no other (cognitive) way to understand the spirit and soul.

Ataria tries to support his claims by providing evidence across several chapters in which he cites interviews with people who experienced extreme situations vis-à-vis their consciousness: prisoners of war who underwent torture and isolation, and veteran vipassana meditators who experienced spiritual episodes of the Buddhist genre. Based on their testimonies, he develops a detailed, elaborate map of how human consciousness is developed by interacting with the world, emphasizing the emotional plane, rather than thoughts. (I will not provide in-depth descriptions here because the necessary background explanations are too extensive, but the discussion is fascinating.)

According to Ataria, there is no “flow of consciousness” that establishes our sense of self. There is no continuous consciousness at all, but rather flashes of mind. The internal sense of continuity, with which we are as familiar as we are with the palm of our hand, is based on the experience of our bodily encounter with the world. Without any interaction with the world (as Ataria concludes from POW and meditative experiences), our sense of self dissolves.

We are not Brains in a Vat

The notion of a “brain in a vat” – a well-known thought experiment in philosophy of mind describing a “Matrix”-like situation in which our brain is detached from the body and attached to wires that transmit information to it – is incorrect, at least if we think that such a brain would be capable of understanding itself or the world. The reality portrayed in the film, “the Matrix,” could not transpire. I explicitly asked Ataria to address this. Here is what he wrote in an informal email in response:

According to “the Matrix,” the notion of a “brain in a vat” is possible; in this way, for instance, Neo learns martial arts by “uploading” software to his brain. [However,] I do not think that our brain is a computer, nor do I think that all it does is execute functions (this, as noted, is the approach in “the Matrix” as well as in the cognitive sciences). In this sense, martial arts are not a [cognitive] function, they are a particular bodily activity that allow me to be present in a certain way in the world (I am absorbed into the world, which also contains me). This is a form of knowing how rather than knowing that. I am not saying (of course!) that the brain is not involved in learning processes, but not only the brain is involved. Moreover, I am not at all certain what people mean when they say that martial arts are a type of information.

But it does not end here. According to “the Matrix,” we understand that the brain is closed to the world, that we do not experience the world itself but rather a representation of the world (as brain researchers have told me more than once in the context of friendly conversation… “Do you really think that you see with your eyes?”). I maintain that even if there are representations, and to be more precise, even if we are capable of representing the world sometimes (I do not deny that we sometimes dream and imagine), ultimately the brain is open to the world – and I might even say that it is entirely open to the world, thus diffusing the border between the brain and the world.

Speaking of movies, what really comes across in the movie “Inside Out” is the idea that the “self” (not a sense of self, but a real Cartesian self) is located in the brain. Like some kind of central control unit. This is also the assumption underlying “The Matrix.” I do not think that there is a Cartesian self that is located in the brain. In fact, right now, while I am totally focused on this answer, I “forget myself” in favor of real-world activity.

“The Matrix,” in short, is just a movie, and there are no movies playing inside the head.

We will not Be Able to Upload Ourselves into The Cloud

These cinematic representations, in “the Matrix,” “the Terminator,” and many other science-fiction stories, suggest just how intuitive these depictions – of a brain inside a body, a “self” within a brain, an immaterial Cartesian consciousness, a homunculus (a “small man”) sitting inside our head watching events and controlling our body – have become, how accustomed we’ve grown to think of ourselves in this way, as beings that reside within the body, within the head, as a brain (or for those who believe, a soul).

The transhumanist fantasy that envisions “uploading” consciousness to a digital cloud or downloading one’s character as data that is saved on a hard disk belongs to the same mode of thought, as do all sorts of supposed points of “singularity” after which we will reside in digital space. Conversely, so do all kinds of horrifying predictions about artificial intelligence coming to life and controlling, from a station within a computerized control center, an army of robots sent to subjugate or destroy mankind.

These dreams and nightmares build on our Western point of view, but of course this is not the only way to perceive ourselves. This is one very particular way, which developed in the West as part of the Hellenistic culture, and from there was appropriated by Christianity. The sages of the Talmud, for instance, did not think that a person is a soul, but rather that he or she is primarily a body (powered, like with a battery, by a divine spirit given by God, and also taken away by Him, whereby a person, being the body, “returns his soul to the creator”). The Western-Christian mode of self-perception is taken for granted in the West, including also by Jews of course, but there is no reason to think that one cannot reach a different form of self-understanding.

What would a self-perception that sees the self as distributed across a broad interactive space, rather than something that is located within the brain, look like? I think that this is an extremely significant question. Would such a person be less egocentric? Would he or she be less self-centered – not as someone who possesses information, but as someone who lives an existential form of knowledge – in that he or she is not just a brain nor merely a body, but a body as well as everything that surrounds it? Would such a person be less anxious, at least inasmuch as anxiety stems from a limited and egocentric perception of our place within the world? Would such a person know how to traverse space more elegantly, like a dancer who moves spontaneously and naturally, rather than someone who tries to consciously control how they dance?

Even if we answer these questions in the affirmative, all of these wonderful advantages are overshadowed by the true accomplishment that a change to our self-perception entails: Ataria holds (and I think that he is right) that the notion whereby we are not merely a brain but rather a system that comprises consciousness, body and environment is also, ultimately, the truth. Meaning that altering our self-perception will allow us, supposedly, to live as we truly are. Imagine that.

Ataria’s book is impressive and fascinating. Nonetheless, I must say: it is not an easy read. It is replete with information, uses technical language, and aims somewhat higher than the average well-educated reader. Had I not possessed some background in Philosophy of Mind, it would have been even harder for me to follow and understand. At the same time, the investment is well worth it: Ataria achieves no less than a new way to understand who we are.


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How the New Israeli Judaism Was Born

From the newspaper articleWhen the image of Srulik, the iconic cartoon character that symbolized Israel, appears on the cover of a book, we know we’d better sit down. It’s a momentous event. Something in us, in our very essence, in our sheer Israeliness, isn’t what it used to be. The sabra image created by Kariel Gardosh (known as “Dosh”) has long since been transformed from the symbol of the young state into the symbol of parting from the young state – a concise representation of everything we no longer are. Usually it turns out we’re no longer young, beautiful, secular and just.

Every society undergoes change, but in Israel the transformations seem especially rapid and, in a particularly reflective culture – the Jewish self-awareness that Woody Allen made a caricature of – there will clearly be a need for an constant introspection. The freneticism accompanying these changes is also understandable: Not enough time has passed since the shtetl for us to feel that we’re comfortable in modernity. Even when what has been repressed isn’t really threatening to burst onto the surface, just the fear that it will can stir anxiety. Accordingly, self-examination and accountability are called for at all times.

Two Hebrew-language studies from the previous decade come to mind in this connection. Their very titles attest to the end of an era: “The End of Ashkenazi Hegemony” (2001) by Baruch Kimmerling and “Farewell to Srulik” (2004) by Oz Almog. Authored by sociologists, these two books marked the transition from denial to awareness, possibly even mourning. Things aren’t what they were, we’re told, and not necessarily for the better.

In his encyclopedic work, Almog summed up the transformations, as he saw them, in the realms of the media, law, women’s status, the family and psychology. The plethora of quotations he generously (at times tediously) offered the reader were intended to illustrate how the Israeli elite (“the veteran Jewish stratum, secular, educated, established”) parted ways from Srulik, who as usual embodies the Israel that is no more.

However, Almog’s explanation for the parting is flawed. In his view, along with the inertia that saps the energy of every revolution, it was the media which reshaped the Israeli consciousness. Supposedly, the media’s control of the agenda caused the Israeli elite to forsake the shared Zionist vision for “globalist consumerism.” Almog concludes by expressing his concern that no new ideological framework will coalesce, and Israelis will gradually be divested of their Jewish identity. Fifteen years on, it’s easy to see that the exact opposite has occurred.

Kimmerling undoubtedly probed deeper than Almog. He eulogized the “Ahusalim” – his acronym for the secular, socialist, nationalist Ashkenazim who founded the country and tried, based on a collectivist “statist” agenda and the social “melting pot” they forcefully forged, to shape the state in their image. The Ahusalim failed, and since the 1970s gradually disappeared from their positions of control and influence.

Kimmerling ascribed most of the responsibility for what he called “the decline of Israeliness” to the Gush Emunim settler movement – something of an Ahusali approach in itself. The messianic spearhead of the religious-Zionist movement supposedly brought to the surface the religious and ethnocentric elements implicit in secular Zionism and hurled them in every direction (though mainly toward Judea and Samaria). The universal humanism in the hearts of the Ahusalim and the civic-republican ethos of the young state were too feeble to resist. Both faded.

But Kimmerling reversed things. It wasn’t Gush Emunim that ruptured the hegemony of the Ahusalim; it was their rupture that allowed the self-confident bullying of Gush Emunim. First, the weakening of the ruling leftist Mapai party in the trauma of the Yom Kippur War – the crisis of faith that seized secular Israelies at the sight of the demigods from the Six-Day War, floundering and humiliated. Second, and more significantly, it was the erosion of socialist collectivism in favor of liberal individualism, that rewrote the Israeli ethos. Both made it possible for Religious Zionism, that admired, almost to the point of worship, not only secular generals but also the state’s leaders, to take the reins and the law into thier hands. . Likud’s rise to power in 1977 completed the process and did much more than religious Zionism to inject what Kimmerling calls “Jewish-ethnocentric categories” into the Israeli identity.

What then brought about the end of Ahusali hegemony? Why did we part from Srulik? Two recently published books reexamine the metamorphoses undergone by Israeli society…

Follow this link to read the rest of the article at the Haaretz site

About The Indiana Law Allowing Business Owners to Refuse to Aid A Gay Wedding

A new law scheduled to go into effect in the state of Indiana in July, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, is supposedly intended to protect the freedom of religious faith of the people of the state. However, it has met with harsh criticism as it is seen as a license to discriminate against LGBT people. The law is not intended to allow discrimination against gay people simply for being gay, but will apparently allow business owners to refuse to serve gay couples seeking to marry – for instance wedding hall owners opposed to such an event held on their property.

According to the New York Times’ analysis, the law allows companies and individuals to refuse to provide service that will place a “substantial burden” on their religious beliefs. Should their refusal land them in court, the judge would have to balance the burden upon their religious beliefs and the state’s desire to prevent discrimination. CNN’s legal analyst believes that the law will not allow people to decline to serve individual gay persons, but will probably enable people to refuse to aid in any way the celebration of a gay wedding. The issue has already drawn furious protests by the gay community, and condemnations from various activists and politicians (such as Hilary Clinton). The Governor of Connecticut has promised to sign an order banning trips subsidized by his stte to Indiana, as has the Mayor of Seattle. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an article decrying the bill, and Ashton Kutcher and Miley Cyrus are tweeting with the hashtag #boycottindiana.

Israeli readers might recall a similar case to come before the Israeli bench. In 2012 Judge Dorit Finestein imposed a 60,000 ILS fine on the guesthouse at Moshav Yad HaShmona, which has refused to hold the wedding of Tal Yaacobovitch and Yael Biran due to their sexual orientation. “The Judge noted that the object of the fine was not only to compensate the couple, but also to educate the public at large in values of equality and human dignity” (from an article by Ilan Lior in Haaretz.) This case had to do with a wedding hall belonging to Messianic Jews, whose faith stood in opposition to the nuptials in question.

Would we accept a wedding hall owner unwilling to rent his hall to a wedding of Blacks/Mizrachis/Jews? Of course not, and in Israel, like in many democracies around the world, there are many laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race. What about a wedding hall owner who won’t rent his hall to an interracial wedding? Of course, those same laws will prohibit that as well. And what of a hall owner who won’t rent his hall to religious people? Or secular ones? I think we would not accept such a reality.

So ostensibly, we are unwilling to countenance discrimination against service seekers. But the matter is not so simple. I think none of us will insist that a private service provider (not a public official or public service) has no right, under any circumstance, to refuse service to a customer. Thus, for example, there have been several cases in which clergymen (not business owners) have been sued for their refusal to marry gay couple – which is completely absurd in my opinion. Must a lawyer accept any client, even those he believes to be immoral criminals? Must a plastic surgeon provide breast enlargement to any woman who shows up at his clinic? How can we force a private person to take on a client whom he or she not only doesn’t want to serve, but ones they believe they must not serve?

But let’s focus on halls and weddings. Consider the following example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re an ultra-orthodox Jew. You have a religious problem with renting the hall to Jews on Friday nights and Saturdays, because you believe that Jews are obligated to keep the Sabbath, and you are unwilling to aid in what to you is a transgression. Likewise, you won’t rent the hall to Jews who want non-kosher food catered. You have no problem renting the hall to non-Jews on the weekends or having non-Jews have non-kosher food catered, and of course you have no problem renting to Jews in general.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re an atheist and a feminist. You have an ideological problem with renting your hall to religious folks who practice gender separation. You don’t want your hall to feature men sitting apart from women, or only male waiters to serve men and only female waiters to serve women. You have no problem with renting the hall to religious people, but not if they practice such separation. The same goes for religious weddings of minors, age 17, let alone 14. That will not happen in your hall.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re vegetarians, or maybe vegans. You don’t offer catering service in your hall, and you allow your clients to hire outside catering services. Although you strenuously object to eating meat, you realize that most people are meat eaters, and are willing to have couples marry in your hall with catering that includes meat. One day a couple comes in wishing to rent the hall. While talking with them you realize that they intend to have catering that serves lobsters. In order for the lobsters to be fresh (and for the added spectacle), they intend to place a giant aquarium in the hall in which the living lobsters will swim, until taken out and thrown live into vats of boiling water. This is too much for you, and you inform the couple that they cannot rent your hall.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. For political and moral reasons, you strenuously object to Israel’s control of the West Bank. You boycott products from the settlements, and won’t rent your hall to people who live in settlements.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You strenuously object to marriage between Jews and non-Jews. For you it’s really not a racial matter, but one of religion and tradition. It is important to you to prevent what you view as a destructive process of diluting and even destroying the Jewish people. You won’t rent your hall for weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Not all of these examples are matching, and we should distinguish them from one another. There is a difference between discriminating against customers on the basis of their race/ethnicity/religion and discriminating against customers on the basis of their actions. The difference stems from the fact that a person’s origin or religion are a deep and essential part of their identity, whereas their actions are not usually a part of their identity. A large part of the human rights discourse is based on what we perceive as sources of identity and deep meaning in our lives. The freedom of expression, for instance, is important not only for the existence of a healthy society with a plurality of opinions and a capacity for self-criticism, but also because one’s ability to express one’s opinions is a central part of one’s self-perception, and one’s dignity. Likewise the freedom of religion and conscience, or most simply put the physical wholeness of our body.

Therefore refusing to rent a hall to someone who boils lobsters alive is not tantamount to refusing to rent a hall to Jews. Likewise, one’s desire to keep one’s hall from hosting a violation of the Sabbath, or the serving of non-kosher food, is not an unfair discrimination, but a protection of one’s religious faith.

And what of a boycott against settlers? Here the matter is more complex. There are people for whom living in Judea and Samaria is a deep part of their identity. They’re not just located in the occupied territories – they are settlers. This is how they perceive themselves; it is a central part of their identity. They view it as a high value and take pride in it. On the other hand, it seems to me that the settler identity is weaker than a Jewish or LGBT one. This is an intermediate case. Is it permissible to discriminate against settlers and refuse to do business with them? When the Boycott Law was passed in Israel, banning calls for boycott based on place of residence, many (myself included) saw it as a base and undemocratic attempt to legitimately oppose the occupation. It seems that many people believe that a private business owner (or consumer) should be allowed to boycott settlers just for being settlers.

Now undoubtedly, homosexuality is a matter of identity, and not of sexual activity. Sexual orientation is considered nowadays as a deep element of a person’s identity, and therefore a central dimension of one’s self-perception and basic dignity. This is why we take such offense at discrimination against LGBT’s – because the logic at the foundation of the human rights discourse leads us to the conclusion that they have equal rights exactly for who they are.

Is it therefore wrong for a private person to refuse to provide a service for gays wishing to get married? Let’s say that person is willing to rent his or her hall for a gay or lesbian person’s birthday party. They have no problem with homosexuality in and of itself – they are not homophobes. They question is must we force such a person to rent their hall specifically for a same-sex marriage, which is to say for the performance of an act they hold to be immoral/contrary to the commandments of God.

Let us compare it to a person unwilling to rent their hall for a wedding with gender separation. By so doing he is basically banning from his business all ultra-orthodox people and most national-religious ones. Is this permissible? We may think it isn’t, and that we should force him. Perhaps we also think same-sex weddings shouldn’t be refused, and that we should force individuals for whom this is against their world-view to rent their hall.

On the other hand, perhaps we think one must not refuse a LGBT wedding but may refuse an ultra-orthodox one. I think that is a legitimate stance, but we must understand that it stems from a particular liberal conception and carries a particular liberal agenda. This is about furthering an agenda based upon the growing discourse of rights, with the position being that the point the discourse of rights has reached in our times is the point to which the law must move. One may refuse to host an ultra-orthodox wedding because they harm the rights of women, and one must not refuse to host a LGBT wedding because their right to marry must not be abridged.

From another perspective one may say that what we have in the last example is an agenda of secularizing the public sphere, like the law forbidding covering one’s face with a burqa in France or the law banning the construction of mosque turrets in Switzerland, that is, a law that consciously overrides a certain religious obligation (in this case the prohibition on same-sex marriage) in order to promote a more secular public sphere.

This is not my position, but as mentioned above I believe it’s a legitimate position. What I’d like to stress is that it is a position. Meaning that there is ideological baggage (let’s say, one promoting liberal democracy and/or secularism). Therefore to the same extent we must recognize that there is nothing obviously true here, and that there can – and should – be public debate between this position and opposing ones.

Rejecting religious or LGBT customers because the nature of the weddings they hold is immoral in the opinion of the hall owner will most likely be perceived by the rejected as a rejection of their identity, and is therefore a very harsh act. However, it can definitely be argued that the rejection is not of religious or LGBT people, but only of the specific act they commit in marriage. Of course this act too reaches far deeper into their identity than eating live-boiled lobsters does into the identity of the diner. This is a far more essential expression of “who they are.” And yet, it can be argued that this still doesn’t turn the rejection of their wedding into a rejection of them. The wedding hall owner can claim to have no problem with observant people or gays, but only with the way they marry.

The context also matters here. If the group discriminated against is a small, weak one which is ostracized by most of society, there is cause for the law to protect it. For instance, if LGBT people were rejected by 90% of wedding halls, and had no reasonable option of holding their weddings, there would be reason for a law to protect them and force hall owners to rent them their halls. I believe the reality is opposite. Hall owners unwilling to rent their halls to same-sex weddings are a minority, and the moral-religious position they hold is becoming less and less accepted in the Western society of our time. See above for a very partial list of those protesting the new law in Indiana to get a picture of the forces that are up against its defenders.

I believe that LGBT people have the right to get married, that is to say, that this is a basic right, and therefore I thing the state should be required to allow same-sex marriage by law (I hope to write about the underlying principles of this sometime). On the other hand, I think that under current conditions, where there is no shortage of halls and officiators who would be glad to host or conduct a same-sex wedding, private business owners should be allowed to retain their beliefs and refuse to hold same-sex weddings in their businesses. This is because society has an interest and an obligation to allow individuals to freely preserve and express their religious and/or moral convictions.

This issue isn’t simple. It involves religion and politics, private morals and legal ruling. It also mixes a certain social perception with a certain political culture, and also a contextual analysis of the facts on the ground. The law in Indiana which allows private people to refuse to take part, as business owners, in a same-sex wedding, defends their private notion of what is good, and this is important. It does not relieve them of the need to justify it, if required, in a court of law. It also does not prevent protests, and even boycotts, by the general public against them. I find this to be a proper balance.

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(I Thank Yael Peled for her enlightening comments on a draft of this article. Of course, all opinions and errors are mine.)

Post-Election Post: The Key to Understanding Netanyahu’s Ascent in the Last Few Days of the Campaign

The key to understanding what happened here in the last few days, mainly the last one, before the Israely elections last week, is identity. That’s the word, that’s what counts. In these elections, questions of identity took on additional meaning, and they are what in the end decided the matter, in a dramatic way. Personally, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t see it coming, and I was also wrong in thinking that the aversion and weariness of a major section of the public with Netanyahu (on the right as well as the left) offered a real chance of changing the government. I was wrong, because I didn’t understand the depth to which the politics of identity penetrates Israel today.

For a start, let’s take the obvious example: Mizrachi (Sephardic) thinkers, artists and political activists who voted for Shas did so only out of identity awareness. The slogan “Mizrachi votes for Mizrachi” says it all. Even if they wanted to promote a socialist worldview, it was subordinate to the most important thing, which is tribal empowerment. That’s how we got secular Israelis, bohemians, and feminist activists who voted for a party that’s resolutely religious, populist, and patriarchal. In general, it was not the values of the party that appealed to them, but the promise to represent/preserve/promote a certain identity.

Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), which claimed to represent a new pan-Israeliness, also based its campaign on the identity element. The excellent slogan “No apologies” that they chose played on two levels of identity: the ethnocentric right in general, fed up with the seeming hegemony of the cosmopolitan left (“the old elites,” etc.), and the religious-Zionist public, which bears decades-old feelings of inferiority toward the secular public. Naftali Bennet promised these sectors a strong stance and empowerment of their identity (religious/Jewish), and he succeeded in attracting many. His campaign hit a reef with the Ohana affair, and began to sink when his party failed to adapt its approach – you can’t keep screaming “No apologies” when in fact, you’re apologizing. All the air went out of the balloon.

Ethnocentric Wave

These two examples are just individual instances of a much larger trend. Although it wasn’t imperceptible, pollsters and analysts failed to identify its influence, particularly in the last few days of the campaign. At the center of this trend stands neither Mizrachi identity nor religious-Zionist identity, but Jewish identity, plain and simple. This isn’t Judaism as a religion or as a culture, but Judaism as an ethnicity, or ethnic nationalism.

Netanyahu won this election not because he is beloved by the majority of the nation, and not because the ideology that his party upholds (without the courtesy of a written platform) is preferred by the majority of the nation – at least not in any comprehensive, rational manner. Netanyahu won because he promised his voters that he would protect them from the forces threatening not just their existence, but their Judaism.

This is an old story, and there’s no point in expanding on it. Let’s just say that Netanyahu, from the beginning of his career, identified a weak point in the Israeli left, and that is the connection to Jewish identity – more complex in the best of cases, weaker in the worst case. His whispered comment in 1999 to Rabbi Kadouri that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish” is a verbal expression of the perception that the Israeli left is less connected to its religious and national roots, not to mention its geographical ones. Thus the left is prepared to relinquish such elements, while the right grasps onto them firmly.

This view has a robust basis. The left has significantly and historically served as the bastion of universal values, and while a nationalist left certainly does exist, identification with particularist values (national, religious, and ethnic) is the beating heart of the right. As the desire for particularist identity is strengthened, this electoral weak point of the left is revealed.

I have already written in various articles that since the nineties, Israel has been experiencing a growing wave of ethnocentrism. This is hardly a sensational revelation, but relies on studies and conclusions that my betters have reached in the past. Here is a comprehensive article of mine on this issue that was published recently. This ethnocentric wave satisfies the demand for identity that has arisen with the spread of cultural colonialism accompanying American capitalism (although the desire for distinct identity needs no real reason to awaken).

Until a short time ago, Naftali Bennet rode this wave of Jewish-ethnocentric identity with great success, and it is what enabled him to reach 17 mandates in the polls early on in the campaign, and even to dream of the prime minister’s post. Netanyahu also rode this wave of Jewish-ethnocentric identity, but in his case, it was not enough to overcome the aversion felt toward him by very large sections of the people.

The Turning Point in the Elections

That was the situation until the week before the elections. When the final polls were released, beginning that Tuesday, they showed that not only was the Likud trailing the Zionist Union, but that the Joint (Arab) List has become the third-largest party. Then the recognition began to spread that change was a real possibility, and that the left had a good chance of winning. The statement by Yair Garbuz about a “small minotiry” involved in “kissing mezuzahs and visiting holy grave sites”, and particularly the effect of a large Arab party on public awareness, aroused fear for the safety of the Jewish identity of “Israel.” Ron Gerlitz wrote in the past that paradoxically, the violence this summer against Arab-Israelis stemmed from their increasingly successful integration into Israeli public affairs. The same happened here: the sudden visibility of Israeli Arabs, the awareness that they were actually playing the democratic game, and successfully, was conceived as a threat to the Jewish identity of the state (Uri Waltman defined the issue in a short Facebook status).

Netanyahu correctly identified this fear, and transformed it into momentum for his campaign. He repeatedly threatened that in the current situation, the Likud would lose its majority to “the left and the Arabs.” Likud headquarters spread word of a left-bloc government supported by the Joint List. The image of Ahmed Tibi began to appear in between Herzog and Livni in Likud adverts. Netanyahu repeated the message with religious fervor, and for an overwhelming public, the smoke-signals in the sky spelled out danger to the Jewish identity of the state. The climax was reached on the afternoon of election day, when he made the announcement (on video, in writing, and he also wanted to broadcast it at a press conference) that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”

That was enough to change the picture from one end to another. Within a short time, the Likud added ten mandates of Jewish Israelis who feared for the Jewish identity of Israel, who were convinced that only Netanyahu and only a strong Likud could protect it.

In these elections, Netanyahu had a big problem, and from this aspect, the journalists and pollsters who identified it were right. The reason he visited Mahane Yehuda without the media was not because he expected to be greeted with cheers of enthusiasm. The reason he put on an interview blitz of pleading and threats was not because he was sure of victory. The reason he told people around him that he had a serious problem was not just because he felt like pressuring them. Mainly, the reason he was forced to turn to the right, all the way to the right, to Kahane’s right, was because victory was not in the bag. Netanyahu achieved this victory only in the last hundred yards of the race, and in that sense, the polls reflected reality. He succeeded in turning the trend around by 180 degrees when he used the threat against the Jewish identity of the state in order to attract voters.

What the Left Can Do

As said, the left suffers from a structural weakness when approaching questions of identity. Yesterday Ofer Zalzberg published an excellent post on his view of the reasons for the Zionist Union’s failure. Writes Zalzberg:

Its strategy also failed because the Zionist Union didn’t succeed – nor did it even try – to present a vision for confronting the issues of Jewish identity in the State of Israel. It focused on Israeliness and Zionism, but it didn’t pay enough attention to Judaism. There are many voters in the Israel of 2015 for whom this is the main issue. Those who supported the socio-economic agenda that Herzog proposed could not switch to the Zionist Union, as they lacked a clear sense that they could trust it with educating their children to be Jews – that they could trust him with the historical challenge of ensuring Jewish continuity in Israel.

Actually, Herzog’s family roots could have served as excellent raw material to create such a feeling, but his party didn’t even make an attempt in that direction. The fact that the Zionist Union includes not one representative of knitted-kipa (national religious) public also doesn’t help, to put it mildly. Until true attention, out of true willingness, is paid to the issue of Jewish identity, the Zionist left will always start from a position of weakness. Until the left is able to supply identity – Jewish, Israeli – with distinct emotional baggage, it will not be able to attract the majority of Israelis who want such an identity, who demand it.

When the Mapai was around, the Labor movement of the past was able to present a solid Jewish identity. Ben Gurion with his love for the Tanach, raising the banner of Jewish history and Jewish nationalism, the republican-collectivist understanding of “the nation” and state – all these, despite their very negative aspects, enabled a significant number to identify with the party. Possibly, Labor’s ongoing correction of the failures of these positions has led to an overly sharp retreat from identification with their positive values.

So what now? It’s not enough to visit the Western Wall minutes before the elections. First, the Zionist Union has to change its perception, to understand that Jewish identity is important (really important, not just tactically – see below). In addition, they must work to add representatives of the kipa-wearing sector to the party. Yair Lapid was well aware of this, and added Shai Peron as his second-in-command and Ruth Calderon as representative of another form of Jewish identity, for which he is still reaping rewards today. The Zionist Union has to talk about “Judaism”. Of course, “Judaism” can be very liberal and very democratic, in terms of the biblical concepts of “love the stranger,” “you shall have one law for yourselves, what applies to the stranger applies to the citizen,” “you shall not follow many to pervert justice.” But they have to talk about it. The party chairman must be a figure with a visible connection to the issue. As mentioned, this could have been quite easy with Herzog, but it didn’t happen. And voters have a clear preference for a leader of Mizrachi origin, for obvious reasons.

Left-wingers who believe that the solution to their camp’s predicament is to join ranks with the Arab citizens of Israel are wrong. Not from an ethical point of view, because of course an emphasis on equal citizenship, on cooperation among all citizens and on rejection of discrimination based on ethnicity, is logical and appropriate from a liberal democratic point of view. But unless there is a change of consciousness of Marxist proportions among the Israeli people, the majority of the public will continue to think along ethnic, not class lines. To be clear: for most of the Jewish public in Israel, Jewish identity – theirs, their children’s, and that of the State of Israel – is a fundamental, central, and irreplaceable component in any worldview or aspiration for the future. It is a mistake to continue to deny this.

Meretz’s Problem

I’ve written about adding to the list representatives of the kipa-wearing public, but we have to realize that this is not really an issue of representation, but rather of image. So the talk about Meretz, for example, as unable to reach broad sectors because it has no representative of that population is pure nonsense. First of all, Meretz is the party with the most variety of ethnicity and gender in its first ten slots. Second, voters aren’t looking for representation. They’re looking for identity – and so the complaints about Meretz will never cease. This is something Meretz isn’t giving them, and maybe can’t give them.

In this regard, Meretz has a serious problem. This party, to which I gave my own vote, has promoted the values of preserving and advancing individual and civil rights. They have a clear platform of promoting universal rights. Not national, and not ethnic. In other words, it’s not only that Meretz doesn’t promote distinct identity, it dismantles distinct identity, in favor of an ethical system that supersedes these identities. It is universalist, cosmopolitan, post-particularist. It offers a discourse of civil rights that crosses boundaries of nationhood and culture, not a discourse of nationality or ethnicity that distinguishes itself from others’ rights and other cultures.

Thus the more Meretz becomes universal, the more they present a broader(!) range of identities and ethnicities within the Israeli public, the less they become attractive for a public that is looking not for the universal, but the particular. So if Meretz supported (heaven forbid) the purity of the Ashkenazi ethnicity, they might be betraying their claim for inclusiveness and equality, but they would attract voters whose Ashkenazi identity is important to them. From another angle, when Meretz were anti-ultra-Orthodox, they had more success, because they aroused and attracted the secular-atheist identity. When they avoided below-the-belt attacks on the ultra-Orthodox public, as they did (justifiably) in this election campaign, they lost voters from the public that emphasizes its secular-atheist identity.

Meretz’s problem is worse than that of the Labor Party, because Meretz’s raison d’etre is universal rights. It’s not that we don’t have a large enough public that’s interested in promoting these rights. The problem is that before the vote, other considerations arise, and large portions of that public usually prefer to give their votes to a party that emphasizes particular identity as well. It’s just as important to them, and perhaps more important. There is also a deep emotional component that acts at the moment of casting the vote. Here as well, those same liberal secular Israelis who voted for Shas are an extreme example of a much broader trend.

Preserving Particular Culture Isn’t a Disgrace. It’s a Value

For many on the left, talk of Jewish identity provokes discomfort. Particular identity arouses images of nationalist chauvinism, racist ethnocentrism, separatism, the ugly arrogance of supremacy. Of course, all these can follow, and often do follow, the adoption of a particularist identity. Still, we must understand three points. First, there is no unavoidable reason for these to follow. Second, canceling a particularist identity is not the way to prevent these negative phenomena. Third, particularist identity has many advantages.

I’ll make this short. It seems obvious that not every unique culture is violent and arrogant, not every attempt to preserve unique culture is oppressive toward someone or something. Just as we are shocked by the destruction of Tibetan culture and its replacement with the unique communist-capitalist formula of the current Chinese regime, just as during our trips to India we search for the places where local culture is preserved and has not yet been distorted into another branch of McGlobal, just as we weep over the loss of the primitive culture of the Australian aborigines, the assimilation of the native Latin American tribes, the elimination of the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazons – so should we mourn when Jewish culture is eroded and becomes just another American franchise.

Particularist culture is a human treasure that must be preserved, but it is also much more than that. It is a fundamental psychological need for most of humanity. It is the human and very simple need for a “home” identity and culture, for a feeling of the known and loved. It’s also the feeling of significance that stems from being a link in a long chain, part of something bigger than ourselves. All these are fundamental human needs, and every ideology that upholds love for fellow human beings should recognize them and give them their due place.

Particularist culture is not only emotional-psychological, but also a social-communal need. Particularist culture encourages solidarity and mutual assistance. It serves as material for constructing creativity and philosophy. Particularist culture also supplies a unique ethical system, a unique worldview, which in our times can be a fresh and vital point of view in contrast to the instrumental utilitarianism of the free market, the shallowness of moral discourse in our time. Something here is worth preserving.

Again, the dangers in empowering particularist culture are clear. My argument is that what prevents these dangers is not denial of all particularist culture, but preserving it while directing it toward positive channels. The effort to ignore particularism means abandoning it to the forces that exploit it in a negative manner, that transform it into shallow nationalism and use it as a license to rob others of their rights.

Again, these are just chapter headings, signposts. But if my analysis of what took place here in the last few days of the elections is correct, it’s an indication that the Israeli left must take into consideration if it wants a solid chance at winnig an election campaign. I’m convinced it’s possible.

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Translated by Academic Language Experts from my Hebrew blog, here.


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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